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A poet performs from the poetry stage at Welcome to Nowhere. (Image: Tina Tiller / Photo: Supplied)
A poet performs from the poetry stage at Welcome to Nowhere. (Image: Tina Tiller / Photo: Supplied)

BooksNovember 19, 2023

‘Start your own damn festival’: A poet’s history of Welcome to Nowhere

A poet performs from the poetry stage at Welcome to Nowhere. (Image: Tina Tiller / Photo: Supplied)
A poet performs from the poetry stage at Welcome to Nowhere. (Image: Tina Tiller / Photo: Supplied)

Jordan Hamel reflects on his time as the poetry stage co-programmer for Welcome to Nowhere, a DIY music and arts festival with a difference.

For a small country, Aotearoa has no shortage of music festivals. Or arts festivals, or, really, any kind of festival. We’re a nation of DIY dreamers and schemers, so if someone has a weird artistic obsession they want to celebrate or gets fed up with being surrounded by 18-year-olds taking MDMA for the first time while listening to four moustached white guys in Hawaiian shirts jangle in the UV-rich Gisborne sun, they do something about it. That’s the attitude of Welcome to Nowhere, whose cofounder Joel Cosgrove of Eyegum Music Collective was once told to “start your own damn festival” after being overheard complaining about the music at a certain, other event. That’s exactly what he went and did.

Welcome to Nowhere sprung up from the titular nowhere in 2017. Taking place in a secret location between Whanganui and Hunterville, it’s a three-day music and arts extravaganza set amid rolling hills, native bush and the Whangaehu river, with a thousand or so festival-goers, artists, volunteers all tenting under the February sky. Taking its name from a Mint Chicks song, the festival showcases the best and most interesting new music from across Aotearoa. Many of our indie darlings turned international exports have graced its hand-painted stages, including Mermaidens, Marlin’s Dreaming, Vanessa Worm and Anthonie Tonnon, in addition to local cult heroes like DARTZ, PolyHill, Night Lunch, Jazmine Mary … I could go on and on. As someone who has gracefully entered their thirties and refuses (is too scared) to seek out new music in my day-to-day life, I have found so many new favourites at Welcome to Nowhere.

Festival goers in the Whangaehu River from the perspective of the poetry stage above it. (Photo: Supplied)

At this point, depending on your persuasion, you might be ready to roll your eyes. Camping? Remote location? Arts and crafts? Isn’t it all sounding a little too “escape society for a wellness retreat”? Didn’t we all get a dopamine hit when the San Francisco tech bros got stranded at Burning Man? (I sure did.) But Welcome to Nowhere has worked hard to actively restrict and resist the insufferable ideologies that run rampant at other DIY festivals. Welcome to Nowhere’s tongue-in-cheek “no hippies” policy, painted on the side of the festival bus years ago by one of its grizzly co-founders exemplifies their mission. In recent years the festival has taken active steps to set it apart similar offerings, becoming one of the first NZ festivals to institute a Covid vaccine requirement during the pandemic, much to the distaste of a small, loud minority of prospective attendees and even one potential act who turned out to be vocal antivaxxers.

In addition, the festival has free drug testing, harm reduction teams, camp meetings, dedicated safe spaces, and remains committed to gender diversity in the lineups, in stark contrast to the male-dominated mainstream festivals elsewhere in Aotearoa. Welcome to Nowhere takes pains to stress that DIY doesn’t mean “do whatever you want.” Many manbunned troubadours turning up to the stage with a guitar asking if they can “have a go” despite not being programmed have been turned away. Dreadlocked white people experimenting with fire poi have been asked politely to stop, as have punters, filled with liquid courage, fancying themselves the next Skrillex, hijacking the DJ stage late at night. I’ve never forgiven the group of burners who smuggled in their own turntables, stole the generator while everyone was asleep and played dogshit EDM all through the early hours of the morning. How many trance remixes of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ could there be? A lot, apparently.

My own professional involvement with the festival began in 2019 when I was asked to co-curate a poetry stage with Briana Jamieson. The festival was looking to expand its artistic purview beyond music. I jumped at the chance. The festival has continued this expansion, featuring art exhibitions, talk shows, comedy, plays and so much more, in addition to the now long-standing poetry stage. Of course I said yes. One of my main artistic principles is to get poetry into the eyes and ears of as many non-poetry people as possible. 

Welcome to Nowhere’s co-poetry programmer, Jordan Hamel, spreading the good word. (Photo: Supplied)

The “poetry stage”, however, was not just any stage, but a high cliff’s edge overlooking the tributary of the beautiful Whangaehu River. I’ve done countless readings in many weird places and still I cannot adequately describe the how special it feels to perform your work on the edge of a goddamned cliff to hundreds of festival-goers swimming or lounging by the river, hearing your own words reverberate off the limestone walls, staring out into the abyss, speaking with the wind. I apologise, I’m getting too poetic. 

Since the introduction of the poetry stage, the festival has featured dozens of the country’s best bards, from published prize-winners to slam champions, veterans alongside new and exciting voices. I look back at those lineups with awe. Although there was one poet I could never convince — my white whale, New Zealand’s poet laureate Chris Tse. Chris has told me repeatedly that I will never get him to spend a weekend camping in the middle of nowhere, shitting in Portaloos, no shower in sight, even for poetry. (Prima donna much?) But I’m nothing if not annoyingly perseverant. I will get you to Welcome to Nowhere one year Chris, mark my words!

Before I move on from congratulating myself, I wanted to share one final poetry anecdote. In my first year co-curating the lineup, there was some hesitation. Would poetry mesh with the festival? Did we have the audio equipment to do the poetry justice outside, at the mercy of the elements? What if the poets fell in the river? Can poets swim? I was understandably nervous.

One of the poets we booked was my friend Sharn. I had only seen her perform once before and was absolutely blown away with her power and ability to hold an audience in her hand. Sharn performed an incredible set that finished with a poem called ‘Te kuri pango’ (‘The black dog’), a heartbreaking piece about depression. During the reading, the festival goers in the river grew silent, mesmerised by the words. Then, halfway through the poem, someone’s black Labrador came running onto the stage from the bush and sat next to Sharn as she finished. I’d never seen anything like it. My favourite moment at any festival I’m involved in is when someone comes up to me and says “you know, I’ve never really been into poetry but that was actually pretty cool.” I lost count of how many times I had that interaction after Sharn’s performance.

A black dog at Welcome to Nowhere. (Photo: Supplied)

While this dog holds a special place in my memory, I did have one unfortunate run in with a dog at Welcome to Nowhere (even though 99% of the dogs at the festival are wonderful and friendly). During one festival I was having a drink with friends by our tent in the afternoon. An act I wanted to see was about to start so I started making my way down Old Man’s Hill (one of the campsites), to the main stage. Suddenly, two dogs appeared from a neighbouring campsite and started barking at me. Maybe it was the beer or maybe the fear, but I panicked and started running down the hill (I’ve since learned that apparently everyone in the world except me knows you’re not supposed to run when a dog barks at you because it WILL chase you). As I ran the dogs chased, one managed to bite me right on the ass, causing me to fall down the rest of the hill in slapstick, Buster Keaton fashion. My friends were no help, laughing their own asses off, but luckily the camp nurse fixed me up and I was good to go.

Another festival dog at Welcome to Nowhere (not the ass-biting dog). (Photo: Supplied)

Sore butt aside, I have countless fond memories from Welcome to Nowhere. Screaming “Fuck my Life” alongside a thousand other people to Hans Puckett as the sun set, watching friends take the stage and allowing their talents to bloom, Anthonie Tonnon making me a cocktail in his mobile mixology van, dressing up as a priest and conducting a “Sunday service” at a beautiful, abandoned church featuring musicians, DJs, and poetry about catholic guilt.

Welcome to Nowhere is a festival that’s run on big ideas, small budgets and community. If you’re there and not too hungover, you pitch in. It’s commonplace to see organisers and festival-goers running around mid-festival with fuel for the generators, rebuilding stages, putting up rain cover and frying hashbrowns for those who overindulged. It’s a place where Aotearoa art and music is relentlessly promoted and expanded. If all of this sounds like something you’re into, then buy a ticket for next year, and if not, start your own damn festival.

Information about Welcome to Nowhere 2024, and tickets, can be found here.

Keep going!